I'm writing this article before the results of SCG Dallas are in. I'm going to let you know way in advance that this also isn't an optimistic tale with a promising pitch or sure happy ending.
I honestly wouldn't be shocked if, despite the bannings, we saw zero Ixalan-based tribal decks at the top tables.
I still want to examine why that might happen and what might still exist, waiting for the right shift of piece of technology to rise to the surface.
Why Play Tribal
In order to build a successful tribal deck, you need to find the payoff. Why are you focusing on a creature type instead of just playing the best cards?
Some past Standard examples:
Faeries had a counterspell on a body and a 4/4 Time Walk.
Merfolk gets to produce absurd amounts of power for the cards and mana it invests.
The better your baseline cards for the tribe are, the looser your payoff needs to be.
Early in Scars of Mirrodin Standard there was a Vampire aggro deck, but it just happened that you had multiple two-power one-drops that were Vampires and the two- and three-drop payoffs were about as good as the alternative.
Or an even better example: Charles Gindy won a Pro Tour post-Morningtide with Elves. Or, really, just B/G Thoughtseize Midrange that played Llanowar Elves and some good stand-alone threats with the creature type Elf.
Just a reminder: you don't have to play tribal cards just because they exist. Kithkin was always a Spectral Procession deck. Early in that season I had success with a deck that replaced the dedicated Kithkin cards with non-Kithkin one- and two-drops, and then the deck just folded into B/W Tokens, as Tidehollow Sculler and Bitterblossom were better cards.
With that in mind, let's step forward to Ixalan and the present.
I'm discussing Pirates first, as it might be the most interesting tribe. Only a small part of that is the fact the deck spans three colors, but more of it is how many format-wide lessons there are to learn from the cards Pirates has access to.
Goldmeadow Stalwart: "merely okay" in 2008.
Red Goldmeadow Stalwart: "pretty good" for 2018.
Red just doesn't have a two-power one-drop. This was a huge issue for post-rotation Ramunap Red that forced it down the midrange road and (ironically) made Ramunap Ruins way worse, as dealing sixteen damage but not twenty was rarer.
A one-mana 2/2 is definitely worse without your lands being able to deal a free four or six damage a game, but it's still a fine red card. That said, I don't think everything is quite there. Kithkin got away with sixteen total Kithkin for Goldmeadow Stalwart, and I think Mono-Red Pirates is stretching to get there. You can play four Fanatical Firebrand, but more than three Kari Zev, Skyship Raider is off the table, and a full four Rigging Runner is something maybe worth trying but questionable. Maybe a couple of Dire Fleet Daredevils sneak into the maindeck to get you to sixteen, but then you have just cut all the haste creatures from your red deck and made it super-difficult to actually kill someone.
Maybe it is just time to go Tom Ross style, play eighteen lands, and just flood our deck with stupid one-drops. Hazoret the Fervent is good, but is it really that good? Okay, yeah, it is, but it's worth trying different flavors of Mono-Red to exploit certain metagames. You know, where everyone forgets Sweltering Suns and Settle the Wreckage were printed.
It is worth noting my Pro Tour team explored a very similar eight-Aura red shell at multiple points last season, usually utilizing the Amonkhet discard sub-theme of Flameblade Adept and Bloodrage Brawler along with the Shadows over Innistrad discard outlets like Furyblade Vampire, and found it was close but not quite there. Maybe a slightly more aggressive set of synergy cards was what it needed.
Outside of Mono-Red Aggro, the B/R Pirates are actually quite good. Dire Fleet Captain is easily a 3/3 or 4/4 attacker for two mana, and unlike every other terrible attempt to remake Hellrider, the Pirate alternative of Dire Fleet Neckbreaker is actually close enough on immediate damage output.
Here's where you get the educational rant, and also why B/R Pirates is awkward. Unclaimed Territory might be the most important tribal card in Standard, because the mana in the format is truly horrible. Enemy-color pairs only get the Kaladesh fastlands before they have to dive into the Stone Quarry cycle of garbage, and allied colors get two cycles of lands that can't cast a one-drop.
Just to look at some numbers: in order to reliably cast one-drops of a color on time, you want at least thirteen sources of the color. Here's what that manabase looks like for a Pirates deck maximizing Grasping Scoundrel and Daring Buccaneer for two-power one-drop curves, with a curve directly ported from the Hellrider Mono-Red decks years ago.
- 4 Daring Buccaneer
- 4 Dire Fleet Captain
- 4 Dire Fleet Neckbreaker
- 4 Dire Fleet Poisoner
- 2 Fanatical Firebrand
- 4 Grasping Scoundrel
- 2 Kitesail Freebooter
- 2 Rigging Runner
- 3 Ruin Raider
- 2 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
That's it. Dragonskull Summit and Canyon Slough don't cast one-drops. This is half the reason every deck plays energy cards and Aether Hub. How could you cast spells in any other way? Look at how Unclaimed Territory being good also just makes Dragonskull Summit more embarrassing. Are you ready to plot out your aggro curve with a double Dragonskull Summit, Unclaimed Territory hand?
There's a bit of an argument for a different Pirates deck using Lookout's Dispersal, which is solidly better than Essence Scatter or Negate as a maindeck counterspell. I don't think the card quality past this is quite there for U/R Pirates, even if the mana with Spirebluff Canal is, but if you tried it, I wouldn't fault you.
I have tried U/B Pirates prior to Rivals of Ixalan, and all it did was try to resolve Hostage Taker and untap with it. I'm pretty sure if you wanted to do that, Esper God-Pharaoh's Gift is better, or just the U/B Midrange deck, or just some reworked Sultai Energy deck with Blossoming Defense.
Now let's get cooking with real mana. Adding Concealed Courtyard to Unclaimed Territory lets us actually cast one-drops and have a semi-reasonable manabase.
That said, the following deck went 5-0 in a Magic Online League and it boggles my mind.
- 4 Adanto Vanguard
- 3 Dusk Legion Zealot
- 2 Duskborne Skymarcher
- 4 Gifted Aetherborn
- 4 Legion Lieutenant
- 3 Sanctum Seeker
- 4 Skymarcher Aspirant
- 2 Twilight Prophet
- 2 Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle
- 2 Yahenni, Undying Partisan
Actually, on second glance, it's not quite as bad as I'm making it out to be, but there are some definite faults. You have nine lands capable of casting Legion's Landing because it isn't a Vampire, resulting in the deck basically splashing a one-drop. Thirteen white sources for your other one-drops is okay. Eighteen black sources for Gifted Aetherborn isn't that bad, but your Lost Legacy isn't going to happen a quarter of the time. Good luck ever casting Dusk // Dawn.
Maybe my biggest issue with two-color Vampires is that is feels like a deck destined to fail. You aren't actually doing anything significantly powerful with your cards, which means that if your opponent just casts some spells on curve into The Scarab God, everything you are doing just falls apart. I'm not sure the Oketra's Monument lists can beat that card either, but at least they can potentially do something big enough to overwhelm opposing average cards on a spell-by-spell basis.
I do think Forerunner of the Legion is a potentially powerful card for the Monument lists of Vampires in small quantities. It is like a fifth Legion Conquistador when mass amounts of creatures matter or a Mavren Fein, Dusk Apostle that doesn't suck in multiples.
The other Vampires card I have my eye on is Champion of Dusk. Drawing three or four cards off a 4/4 is a huge deal, and being at minimum a two-for-one is too. This would be ideal for a faux-midrange Vampires deck, though I think the mana constraints of the format work hard to turn that into a deck where you should just be playing The Scarab God. If Champion of Dusk ended up seeing play in a deck that just happened to have Gifted Aetherborn already, I wouldn't be shocked, but again, I also wouldn't be shocked if that deck was just U/B with three The Scarab Gods.
After my last Taking a Swipe feature with Shaun McLaren, it was pointed out to me that Paladin of Atonement does have painlands via Shefet Dunes and Ifnir Deadlands. I'm unsure a two-color Vampires list isn't already too flooded on two-drops to want a slow-ish Watchwolf kind of card or that it can support activating both Deserts with Unclaimed Territory in the manabase, but non-Vampires two-color decks might want the kind of two-drop Paladin represents. Sadly, W/R is the color pair that wants it the most, and…well…uh…
Let me just speak my peace about this deck, and then everyone can get back to playing whatever they want and winning an arbitrary percentage of their matches.
Standard Merfolk is a million times more embarrassing than Modern Merfolk for all the same reasons.
Merfolk is a G/U deck. It is by default skewed towards sucking at interaction. It doesn't have some awesome free counterspell to save it. It isn't in the miracle position of all of its linear threats happening to be bigger than what they are crashing into. It isn't the G/U Madness deck of almost twenty years ago.
Merfolk is a pile of creatures that don't matter and a few that do. In the face of a midrange deck with some removal good enough to kill the real threats and some creatures better than the crappy cards, you are going to crumble. Great news: the default Standard deck for the last ten years has literally been a solid amount of good removal alongside some individually powerful threats. The other default strategies are more efficient creatures, and this time your giant Merfolk thing doesn't randomly have protection from red, and "removal or sweepers against your no-value-lands pile of 2/2s." These aren't good matchups either.
Your strategy is by default bad against Standard. Not the current Standard metagame, Standard as a generalized idea. Great job.
I want to say I'm closing out on an interesting tribe, but there might not be a tribe more emblematic of the issue of Ixalan tribal than Dinosaurs.
Honestly, the biggest issue with Dinosaurs is that, despite the cards being good, most of the good ones don't give you a reason to play other Dinosaurs. Even Regisaur Alpha is largely doing its job by just existing on the battlefield without help. Look at Glorybringer and The Scarab God. If you cast a five-drop in Standard and untap with it, why do you need to cast more big spells to leverage it? Why isn't just untapping in that spot enough?
Any parasitic benefit of playing more Dinosaurs is thrown off by the fact that almost none of the Dinosaurs payoffs are actually Dinosaurs themselves. How are you fitting these cards, Dinosaurs, and presumably enough generic good interaction to survive to play your five-drops in the same deck?
So whatever, let's talk about these Dinosaurs cards that aren't Dinosaurs.
Looking at traditional payoffs, Otepec Huntmaster is by far the best reason to play Dinosaurs. Haste is really good. But the Dinosaurs in white aren't that good, and moving down the G/R path exposes a huge hole in this Standard format: G/R midrange just can't exist because the removal doesn't line up with the threats. Temur leaned heavily on blue answers in the form of Essence Scatter, Confiscation Coup, and Vizier of Many Faces to cover this weakness to the many rock-solid threats people have access to. If you are straight-up G/R, you can't beat The Scarab God. Even Glorybringer is probably costing you two cards and a bunch of mana every time it is cast. You need to be playing some subset of Esper colors if you deck normally plans on operating around Turn 7.
I threw around some Naya Dinosaurs decks early in the format, but again the three-color mana is not great. The Dinosaurs decks want to be piles of four-mana threats and then need four-mana answers, but looking at the current Grixis Midrange decks, you need to be playing a lot of two- and three-drop cards. That way, when your three-color mana misses a little, you can still cast spells on turns you play tapped lands.
Trying to build a bulky Dinosaurs deck is like building a normal midrange deck solely to make The Scarab God or Glorybringer as good as possible. Who cares? Just play a normal game of Magic and cast your five-drop, and if it doesn't do the job, you should play a different one.
- 4 Adorned Pouncer
- 2 Deathgorge Scavenger
- 4 Drover of the Mighty
- 4 Imperial Lancer
- 3 Kinjalli's Sunwing
- 3 Ripjaw Raptor
- 2 Sacred Cat
- 4 Siegehorn Ceratops
- 2 Thrashing Brontodon
There are a lot of speculative cards with only two or three copies here, but hopefully this showcases the issues of going down this road.
How can you balance your pump spells with enough creatures to enable your double striker?
If you lean on the creature heavy pump spells, how can you balance Dinosaurs in the place of curving out?
Why have Ixalan tribes failed to take root in Standard?
It isn't Kaladesh's fault that energy or artifacts are just better. Well, not entirely.
The Ixalan tribes lack pushed identity, unlike the last few tribal blocks. This results in there not being a real reason to play these cards instead of cards that pack a better raw rate. They are by default playing catch-up on a card-by-card basis.
Some tribes have good cards, but they fall into the trap of existing just to exist. Hostage Taker being a Pirate is cool, but the Pirate payoff cards just don't align with it on-color, meaning it just kinda exists in the format as a card with a random creature type.
The Ixalan tribes are heavily multicolored in comparison to past tribal blocks. This syncs up with the mana in this Standard format being really punishing to low-curve multicolored strategies. We have actually seen this issue before, and it is a big part of what made Shards of Alara Jund so hard to unseat. If your two-color theme deck is going to have a decent percentage of games with clunky mana and curve, why not just play clunky mana and curve with better cards?
Not all of these problems are permanent, but they are the status quo. Still, this happens, and it isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are actually a ton of good cards and strategies in Standard and we don't need the flagship Ixalan decks there to have a full and interesting metagame.
But I can't say it wouldn't have been cool for Dinosaurs to actually battle Pirates at the top tables of major events.